A field of roses! The Rosa Centifolia in full bloom, a delicate pink rose with light roundish leaves and fine prickles. A demure small-petaled variety, also known as Rose de Mai, that is particular to Grasse and whose fragrance is clear and sweet with notes of pale honey and heady green earth. (One of the students asked of our guide if this was indeed Centifolia and he rolled his eyes, and said, ‘This is not a question; of course it is Centifolia!’) We drove about 15 minutes to get there, to the Valley of Siagne, near a village called Pegomas. The farm also produces absolutes of Mimosa, Jasmine and Orris.
Our tour began in the extraction area, where burlap bags full of fresh roses from the fields outside were being emptied into the giant extractors. These distillers are cylindrical, about 10feet across and 6feet deep, and are filled with five thick layers of flowers separated by metal grates. Once full, the heavy lid is swung closed on the top, latched into place, and then under pressure, hexane, a highly volatile solvent, is pumped in to wash the roses of their essence. The process takes only about 10 minutes, after which the hexane, now impregnated with all the soluble plant waxes, and oils from the roses is pumped off. Next, hot steam floods the tank and is distilled off the remaining flower mass to extract the last of the hexane so that no toxic residues end up in the environment. The spent roses are composted. The hexane is separated and distilled out and is reused for consecutive extractions.
The initial raw product that results, once the hexane has been removed, is the rose concrete- a dark coloured dense wax, rich with fragrance. This is then washed with pure ethyl alcohol to separate the plant waxes from the precious absolute. One more step follows; because modern perfumery requires a colourless product, the rose absolute is then purified of its pigments with activated charcoal. The final yield is only about 600grams of absolute per 400kg of flowers.
Rose oil and/or absolute is a precious and irreplaceable ingredient in the fine perfume industry. The chemistry of this flower’s oil is so complex and intricate that it is impossible to reconstitute it completely, even in the lab. Rose is used in most fine perfume formulations because of the fine, beautiful and natural notes that it will give to the body of a fragrance. Chanel uses the extracts produced here for in the formulation of its trend-setting perfume- Chanel 5. They source the oil exclusively here, so as to have as much control as possible of the consistent quality of the oil.
We went out to the fields next, to see the plants themselves, and, as it turned out, to meet some of the workers (who were all from the south of Italy and North Africa). The day was hot and bright, it was about 11:30 in the morning and they were already half way through harvesting the field. Everyday the blossoms are picked, loaded into the jute sacks, piled on a trailer behind a tractor, hauled back to the processing plant, weighed and the extraction done immediately thereafter.
There were 17 of us from the school on the tour, including 6 from another team who have been studying cosmetic formulation. Throughout the experience, in the production area and out in the fields, I couldn’t help but notice the great sense of joy and good spirits that pervaded all of us, including the workers and our accompanying teachers. The magic of the rose, the sweet warmth of the heart, was everywhere that day. It was a fantastic lovely experience for all of us….
SONG OF THE ROSE
If Zeus chose us a King of the flowers in his mirth,
He would call to the rose, and would royally crown it;
For the rose, ho, the rose! is the grace of the earth,
Is the light of the plants that are growing upon it!
For the rose, ho, the rose! is the eye of the flowers,
Is the blush of the meadows that feel themselves fair,
Is the lightning of beauty that strikes through the bowers
On pale lovers that sit in the glow unaware.
Ho, the rose breathes of love! ho, the rose lifts the cup
To the red lips of Cypris invoked for a guest!
Ho, the rose having curled its sweet leaves for the world
Takes delight in the motion its petals keep up,
As they laugh to the wind as it laughs from the west.
(English translation, by Mrs Browning, of ‘the song of the rose’ reprinted from Greek Poets in English Verse. Ed. William Hyde Appleton
Riverside Press, 1893)